Opinion | How to Argue Well

Once you’ve decided to argue, Seo says, you know what you’re arguing about. First, determine the fact, judgment, or rule that you want someone else to accept. Let’s say it’s “Jen is a team player”. To make this claim, add the word “because” and state your reason (“because it involves everyone in the department”). From there, you offer rationale and evidence to back it up. (“She’s always walking around the room.” “She checks in with her crew weekly.”) That speaks for you.

Importantly, showing someone else is wrong is not the same as being right yourself. In a debate, destroying the other team doesn’t necessarily prove your team is right, nor is it likely to convince anyone who didn’t agree with you in the first place. “No no makes you say yes,” one of Seos’ trainers once said.

Finally, never let a tyrant dictate the terms of a debate. When faced with a thug — someone whose goal, as Seo puts it, “is not to persuade but to silence, marginalize, and break the will of their opponents” — your only hope is to understand the structure of the restore debate. In other words, see above.

Some say that competitive debate is a flawed model for healthy discourse, whether in domestic disputes or political disagreements. In an essay in The Dublin Review, writer Sally Rooney, a former master debater, called formal debates overly aggressive and potentially immoral. “For the purposes of this game, the emotional or relational aspects of the argument are redundant,” she wrote. Writer Ben Lerner, who also spent years as a debater, an experience he drew on in his 2019 novel The Topeka School, told me he needed to unlearn the notion that “every conversation has a winner and a… loser ends”.

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Whatever the shortcomings of the school debate, our dominant argument models—cable news and courtrooms—certainly don’t offer much hope. As Mark Oppenheimer, a former religion reporter for The Times and author of a memoir on debates, told The New Yorker in 2010, “The Soundbite culture ruined everything.” And that was 12 long years ago.

But Seo thinks we’re idealizing a past of civil disagreements. “Those were the days when people couldn’t talk,” he told me the other day. “The disagreements were there; they just weren’t visible. What we’re doing right now is unprecedented, giving a diversity of people the floor.” Avoiding difficult conversations, he says, “can lead to contempt and difference.”

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